One of the enduring charms of British politics is how slight the pecuniary rewards are for taking up the job of prime minister. American presidents can look forward to stonking great advances on their memoirs. (Barack and Michelle Obama received a joint up-front payment of £47 million from Crown publishing group.) They claim rock-star appearance fees in exchange for a few platitudes to sandalled Silicon Valley execs. (Bill and Hillary Clinton raked in £110 million in speaking fees between 2001 and 2015.) A stint in the White House boosted George H W Bush’s net worth by 475 per cent and Richard Nixon’s by 650 per cent, pocket change compared to Bill Clinton’s 6,150 per cent.
Unlike 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, no one enters No. 10 Downing Street expecting to leave fantastically wealthier. So there’s something almost admirable about David Cameron managing to parlay six not-terribly-impressive years of government work into an alleged £7 million payday from Greensill Capital. Panorama says Cameron even promoted Lex Greensill’s firm alongside the man himself at a June 2019 pitch to clients of Credit Suisse, at an event titled ‘The Future of Supply Chain Finance’. This future turned out to be a brief affair and Greensill filed for insolvency in March, but Cameron’s involvement drew attention for the WhatsApp offensive he launched, badgering ministers and senior civil servants in an (unsuccessful) effort to secure his employer access to the government-backed Covid Corporate Financing Facility.
There is no suggestion Cameron did anything unlawful. He waited the requisite two years after vacating Downing Street to begin working for Greensill. He was not registered as a lobbyist but, as an employee rather than a contracted consultant, the rules did not require him to be. The Treasury Committee’s report into the collapse of Greensill said Cameron showed ‘a significant lack of judgment’ in using ‘less formal means’ to lobby the government, an approach ‘aided by his previous position of prime minister’. Nonetheless, it found he ‘did not break the rules governing lobbying by former ministers’, though it said this ‘reflects on the insufficient strength of the rules’ and concluded there was ‘a strong case for strengthening them’.
It says a lot that a former prime minister can lobby his old mates in government for access to Covid support cash for a company which paid him ‘a generous annual amount’ (‘far more than what I earned as prime minister’) and in which he held shares without breaking a single rule. But it says a lot more about David Cameron that he did it. That, as a former prime minister, he saw the devastation Covid threatened for Britain’s small businesses and registered an opportunity. That, at the first chance, he traded elder statesmanship for seven figures and the occasional jaunt on a private jet.
None of this would have come his way had he not been prime minister, much in the same way that it is unlikely he’d have been hired for a £90,000-a-year PR job at Carlton aged 27 had his future mother-in-law, Lady Astor, not had a word with Michael Green. When you have gone through life having opportunities handed to you, you probably don’t stop to wonder what people might think of a former prime minister selling out for corporate cash.
James Kirkup gives Cameron a much-deserved kicking as a man ‘willing to demean himself and his former office just because someone offered him a big cheque’, but a few flicks of the steel toe-cap ought to be directed at the social and political milieu which allows the likes of Cameron to prosper.
When a 25 year old lands a job as special adviser to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the blame doesn’t lie with the 25 year old. When he goes on to win an election against an unpopular prime minister in the wake of a global financial crisis, the culpability is more fuzzy. But when he does one of the worst turns in No. 10 in generations and makes a lucrative career on the strength of it, you have to wonder whether the rest of us are enablers.
The lessons learned from Greensill should not be limited to supply-side financing and lobbying rules. They should extend to how we go about keeping chancers like Cameron out of public office. His record alone should be grounds for greater vigilance. I’ve said my piece previously about how Cameron’s austerity thumped the poor, the low-paid and the disabled, but he was also abysmal in Tory terms.
It was on Cameron’s watch that defence spending was cut by £6.6 billion in real terms and the UK buddied up with the regime in Beijing. It was Cameron who fed the devocrat beast in Scotland and Wales with more powers but no strengthening of the Union in return. It was Cameron who granted Alex Salmond an independence referendum largely on terms favourable to the former SNP leader; Cameron who came closer than he ever expected to losing the vote; and Cameron who squandered the victory by ramming through English Votes for English Laws – before handing the SNP sackfuls of new powers.
Any Brexiteer willing to give him begrudging credit for holding the 2016 referendum should remember he did so out of strategic ineptitude, not democratic principle. He called the vote to manage two political problems, his party’s internal divisions and Ukip’s growing appeal to Tory voters, and did not seriously entertain the possibility that Leave might win. When it did, he hightailed it out of No. 10 and left others to clean up his mess. If the man oozed any more entitlement he could almost fill his moral vacuum.
You don’t need to be a Marxist to look at Cameron’s ascent (or that of a certain other Old Etonian) and want to smash to smithereens the nexus of wealth, class, public schooling and nepotism that runs this country. We should resolve the following: no more PR smoothies. No more spivs. No more dismal scions of a dismal elite. No more upwards failures, no more chinless wonders, no more hooray Henrys. No more fake-it-till-you-make-it. No more he’s-a-good-egg-really. No more cabinets that could double as an Oxford Conservative association reunion. No more faux-solemn blather about patriotism and public service from people who don’t give a damn about this country. No more belt-tightening for the proles and pocket-stuffing for the poshos. No more settling for Camerons.
Oh and no more Eton. The college has supplied us some great prime ministers (Pitt the Elder, Gladstone) and some good ones (Grey, Balfour) but in the last hundred years we’ve had Eden, Macmillan, Douglas-Home, Cameron and Johnson. It’s clear the school is no longer sending us its best. We can’t know for certain whether it’s Eton that makes the ruling elite the way it is but we do know rather a lot of them pass through its doors, so just to be on the safe side we should start discriminating against Old Etonians in appointments to high office. No doubt someone will object on equalities grounds but if we can bar Catholics from the throne we can bar anyone who has ever sung the Carmen from the cabinet room. It might save us from future David Camerons or, even better, convince his class to stop creating them.